The Daily Tar Heel

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Friday January 22nd

‘The Wisdom of Crowds’ author James Surowiecki: tap into collective intelligence

There is strength in numbers.

James Surowiecki, author of “The Wisdom of Crowds,” explained why at a talk Wednesday night in Carroll Hall.

A mix of faculty and students totaling about 70 people attended.

Surowiecki focused on the benefits of collective wisdom, citing examples such as the “Ask the Audience” lifeline option on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” in which the audience poll boasts a 91 percent success rate in selecting the correct answer.

“Groups of people can be intelligent, even smarter than the smartest in the group,” Surowiecki said.

“If you can tap into the collective intelligence of a team or organization, you can increase the chance of solving a problem.”

Surowiecki said NASA once launched a website where viewers classified Mars craters after a 30-minute tutorial, and the average result was comparable to that of a geologist with seven or eight years of experience.

But Surowiecki emphasized a distinction between certain crowds.

“The real question, the real key, is what does it take to separate a wise crowd from a foolish one?” Surowiecki said.

Surowiecki stressed diversity as a necessary element of a wise crowd, explaining that cognitive diversity allows a group access to different ways of approaching problems.

“You can know less and still add value, as long as what you know is different,” Surowiecki said.

Surowiecki said people approaching ideas from different angles gives groups a wider range of information and can enhance discussions.

He also discussed the Internet and its strength in amalgamating various sources of information.

He mentioned Google, which polls sites to determine which results are the most relevant to a query, and the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

“Wikipedia … ultimately constructs a very valuable asset by aggregating knowledge of an enormous number of people all over the world,” Surowiecki said. “They’ve done this without paying people and with a very light form of organization.”

Surowiecki said the wisdom of a crowd is important in both present and future settings.

“Collective intelligence is quite valuable,” he said. “It’s not just interested in figuring out where information is, but also where it is going to be.”

Surowiecki said the odds on a horse at the racetrack are incredibly accurate, allowing betters a very prescient forecast.

Orin Metts, a sophomore psychology and exercise and sport science double major, said Surowiecki made a significant point.

“It’s great that people are here and that they’re aware that people think differently around others,” Metts said. “That’s an important take-home message.”

David Yasinovsky, a sophomore psychology major, said he had wanted to meet Surowiecki since reading his book but still took away new information after the talk.

“The most interesting part for me was his point that a cognitively diverse group of people can come up with a better solution than a group of experts,” Yasinovsky said. “I think that’s his breakthrough.”

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